Undercurrents to the current crisis

Mike Berger on Fanon and the Fallists, and some other issues lost in the partisan passions of the moment


I have chosen here to address some important issues which get lost in the partisan passions of the moment under a series of headings.

"Where 19th-century childhood was a magical kingdom... children’s minds could now be filled with dystopian fantasies of sex and violence." Paula S Fass, Aeon 26 Oct 2016 (on-line)

Paula Fass was writing about the collapse of "adolescence" in the USA. She defined adolescence as the time young people could internalise the norms and values of their society, explore their sexuality under supervision and discover/invent their adult identities.

She attributed the decline and fall of adolescence to the developing need for higher skills in the workplace necessitating college education, earlier onset of puberty and exposure to adult sex and violence through the internet. But, whatever the causes, there is little doubt that young people are being exposed to adult issues increasingly early in life.

What is true for the USA is multiplied many-fold in South Africa. Our levels of poverty, physical and sexual abuse of children and women, illegal drug usage, violent crime, inequality and educational deficits are all amongst the highest in the world. Astonishingly, on the Global Happiness Index rankings for 2016 South Africa, at 116 out of 157 countries, ranked lower than Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

Simply put it means that a substantial segment of South African adolescent and "emerging adults" have been exposed to extreme violence and exploitative sex through direct lived experience. This must have a profound effect on levels of trust and attitudes within our society as a whole and it is not difficult to see how this tragic exposure may promote a self-perpetuating cycle.

It's hardly surprising that the dominant mode of political expression is increasingly one of violent destructiveness. Of course, there are other well-known reasons for this, including legacies of Apartheid and the liberation struggle, the toxic mix of delivery failure and the rising expectations of a growing Black middle class, the cynicism generated by a corrupt and greedy leadership engaged in factional struggles for power, the amplification potential of the modern media environment and a large youth bulge to name some.

Given this remarkable combination of social ills, things could be worse and, paradoxically, that is cause for hope. It implies that the institutions and norms of democratic rule under law are still a powerful force in South African society. But the culture of violence is becoming increasingly written into our social and political DNA. Once that has taken root it may prove difficult or impossible to pull ourselves out of the spiral of disintegration. It needs serious attention.


Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Eric Hoffer, The Temper of Our Time

I cannot think of a better summing up of the trajectory of the ANC. One suspects that, partly unconscious but painful, realisation amongst both the idealists and the opportunists within the youth movement fuels much of its excesses.

Furthermore, the Fallist movement is itself has become an extortion racket: unless South Africa/the Universities capitulate completely to demands (which they are free to extend indefinitely) they threaten open-ended destruction and violence. At its extreme the Fallist movement has elements of the same dynamic as Jihadism: a nihilistic, necrophilic and narcissistic impulse to power.

Appeasement has proven, yet again, ineffective in breaking this cycle. Legitimate authority must be restored before it will be possible to distinguish the real issues from the red herrings and provide more productive channels for the anarchic energies of the young. The youth, on which our collective future rests, have the potential to destroy our national prospects for the foreseeable future. They need a combination of containment and realistic hope and it is for the University leadership to provide that.


 “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.” Frantz Fanon

Fanon is a powerful and seductive writer and this quote strikes me as truthful and poignant. In part, many of the unrealistic and unjustified demands being made by the Fallists are a response to the agonies of deep self-doubt.

In the grip of such perceptions, they cannot accept that their liberation struggle has succeeded, that their fate is in their hands and that they are already decolonised. The existence of real continuing inequality and their own perception of a humiliating dependence on the culture and products of the colonial enterprise combine with feelings of inadequacy to ignite a desperate rage against their situation. This finds expression in anger towards the embodiment of their fate, the continued presence and lingering privilege of whites in this country.

The better answer lies in a more honest engagement with the sources of their own inner turmoil and mastery of the attitudes and skills required by a modern democracy in a globalised world. Scapegoating others and chasing Utopian fantasies is the path to ruin.


“For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.” -  Frantz FanonThe Wretched of the Earth

Fanon understood the power of words which he believed were a means to empowerment and ultimately social transformation and justice. That is true. But it is also true that stirring rhetoric can disguise empirical and logical emptiness and can lead to ruin. Lord Acton said that "those whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad". They are made mad by words; science is one important antidote.

 Science fully emerged as a defined human enterprise with its own norms and institutions in the course of the European "Enlightenment". In fact, the term "scientist" was coined by the philosopher William Whewell (also responsible for the word "consilience" popularised by EO Wilson in his book of the same name) only in the 19th century.

Although science has been a dominantly European cultural product, its roots extend back and outwards into other eras and societies. Perhaps more importantly, it has lately become the prime example of global human cooperation, a true brotherhood of peoples across the globe.

That is one reason why science is so important in a militantly tribal context like our own. Science, even more than sport and other great cooperative enterprises, provides a common ground for peoples with different histories, lived experiences and tribal loyalties to share in their universal humanity.

The other reason is that science is an antidote to mere plausibility and wishful thinking. The norms and institutions of science are the best single method for arriving at "truth" (in a process of punctuated incrementalism). The "truths" of science, unlike other truths, are always regarded as temporary and bounded, subject to modification and even rejection, not through rhetoric but through the same painstaking processes which created the "truth" in the first instance.

I bring this up because in their wholesale rejection of perceived European colonialism, the Fallists have rejected their own lifeline to salvation: science and the culture which underpins it. The answer is more science, not less.

And in case many young people believe that science is a soulless enterprise, here are the words of William James which may cause you to think again: "When one turns to the magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and sees how it was reared; what thousands of disinterested moral lives of men lie buried in its mere foundations; what patience and postponement, what choking down of preference, what submission to the icy laws of outer fact are wrought into its very stones and mortar...then how besotted and contemptible seems every little sentimentalist who comes blowing his voluntary smoke-wreaths, and pretending to decide things from out of his private dream!"


Not many readers will know much about Jeffrey Herbst, Terrence McNamee and Greg Mills. They are not public celebrities and they write sober, reasoned prose not calculated to stir the blood.

They are political or social scientists who jointly edited and contributed to (along with others) a highly-regarded recent book entitled, "On the Fault Line: managing tensions and divisions within societies" in which they meticulously examine a number of societies across the globe which have experienced serious conflict across any number of "fault lines", ethnic, religious and class - to mention the most obvious.

In their Conclusion they state that "...modern statecraft is not about creating a new Camelot but carefully and pragmatically managing the fault lines present in all societies". They also come to the conclusion that democracy rather than autocratic government is the best way to manage such fault lines over the long term.

But, like all scientists, they would be the first to admit that this may not be universally true. Indeed they mention China which does not fit comfortably into their thesis. Moreover democracy may come in many flavours and may indeed may not be possible under certain conditions.

South Africa, which is covered in the book, comes with its own unstable set of fault lines cutting across many dimensions. Over the last 20 years, instead of providing a stable base for the creation of a national identity and public ethic supportive of a non-racial democracy, our government has done the opposite.

Racial and other divisions within our society have been exploited for political purposes. Greed and power have been the main motivations driving our ruling class rather than the national interest. The rule of law has been subverted to advance the interests of the ruling faction within the leadership elite. Imported slogans and ideologies have flourished alongside a xenophobic nationalism, creating a Babel of competing tribal affiliations.

As already pointed out, it is hardly surprising that within this context a cynical and angry youth have fallen prey to fantasies of power and Utopian visions. Contrary to the racial pessimists I do not believe that a disastrous outcome is ordained.

But if violent Balkanisation or some other cataclysm is to be avoided, then we need to put an end to the Zupta Syndrome, assert the rule of law and address the underlying political malfunctions and inequalities. We need leadership from the bottom-up, and South Africans can no longer afford the excuse of bad leaders for their own shortcomings. It is for citizens to set the parameters and the elected leaders and assorted experts to implement them; or at least to govern through a civil and productive interaction between leadership and citizenry.


""A body in motion will remain in motion unless it is acted upon by an external force" - Simplified version of Newton's First Law of Motion

Metaphorically speaking, Newton's first law can also apply to human affairs. In today's tightly interconnected world, technological innovation and human political and commercial activities set in motion a series of intertwined consequences very difficult to predict, even if people are paying careful attention. The necessity for thoughtful, informed leadership and citizenship has never been greater - nor its absence more catastrophic.

But in most cases little thought is given to longer terms outcomes by actors with short term selfish agendas, psychological needs or overriding political ideologies. When carelessness is coupled with ignorance it becomes deadly; a brief glance around the world and closer to home will confirm this.

Right now the entire global system is racing towards Armageddon in the form of multi-system failure caused by environmental poisoning and runaway climate change. For those who missed the screening of "Before The Flood" last night see these links https://www.beforetheflood.com/ and http://www.skepticalscience.com/.

How can South Africa seriously address her role in a coordinated global response to this existential challenge if citizens allow themselves to be continually distracted by the political circuses of the moment of which the recent Gordhan fiasco is a prime example. Zuma and handlers must be held democratically responsible for such crimes against the citizens of this country at this time of transition. It is in our hands.

Mike Berger

PS. Tribe/tribal is used throughout to denote any group of people united by ethnic or religious or ideological or some other bond who engage in coordinated political activity to a significant extent.